I’m not sure how I stumbled upon Diane Setterfield’s books but they are everything that I wish I could write and probably never will. Filled with unwordly fairytale prose describing a world that exists but at the same doesn’t, she examines the human condition of death, love, and truth.

The Thirteenth Tale

A story within a story. Margaret Lea receives an amazing offer – to meet reclusive author Vida Winter and help her write her biography. Winter is famous for stories that disturb and enchant, and now near the end of her life, she wants to reveal the truth about herself. Or does she just want a captive audience?

Part Gothic, part Magical Realism, in the end what Winter tells Margaret may not be true at all.

At the first page, I was entranced by this book. It held all the elements I enjoy: historical, mystery, puzzling back stories, and a plot that all revolves around the love of a telling a good story. Case in point – Winter’s mysterious book The Thirteenth Tale that has no thirteenth story contained within.

Setterfield writes books you seldom see nowadays – thoughtful, descriptive, and well researched. They tell a narrative in a way that makes you feel comfortable (but uneasy) as she leads you down along a path of enchantment. Her prose takes time to digest, these are not quick reads, easily set aside. The stories haunt you afterward.

Setterfield’s books are about story telling. If you haven’t read her others you may not see the connection, but this author loves the very act (as in verb and noun) of storytelling and stories. How much truth is in the stories we tell? And how do we change them by the very act of telling them? How do they define our world and how others perceive us?

This book is for readers who have a passion for words and the worlds they can create. It is all wrapped up in the typical trope of the Gothic – lonely girl goes to a desolate home to help a mysterious person (benefactor or villain?). Through the process the heroine, Margaret, begins to understand herself and her place in the story and the greater world.

If you a reader with an appreciation for the Gothic genre, and the length it takes to build this type of tale with the artistic brush of a master, you will love this story.

Of the three I read this one would probably be the most approachable by readers as the narrative is a bit more straightforward with fewer characters than her other two books. While I did guess the twist (because I’m a twisty thinker) the overall story and where it goes was lovely.

If you are a reader who wants a fast-paced, full of tropes, rollercoaster of a ride – this story is not for you.

Bellman & Black

William Bellman starts out as a character that you feel slightly repelled to read about. He’s ambitious, careless to those around him, and driven. The killing of a rook, puts himself and his gang of fellows under what seems to be a curse thought Will conveniently has forgotten the circumstances.

However, the life he has built for himself shatters under tragedy. Thinking he has made a deal to capitalize on death, he exploits the Victorian obsession with death for profit. But is he really fulfilling the contract he has with the mysterious Black?

Loved the first section of this book. The second not so much.

In the beginning, we learn William is a young man prone to take a tumble with a lassie in the grassie (there is several consensual, quick sex scenes probably very accurate to the times so just be aware if that upsets you). His uncle takes him under his wing and Will becomes a success at the mill (not not for processing grain but for wool).

He seems to have it all – this Wunderkind. His business ideas flourish. He falls in love, marries and has children. But everywhere his life is dogged by a mysterious figure who appears at the funerals of those he loves.

In the second section, after the loss of almost every family member, Bellman becomes obsessed with building a new store in London. One that will cater to those who need goods for mourning. It is the profile of a man who thinks numbers, list, and staying busy will stop his mind unraveling.

This is the section that I thought lost steam.

Here Bellman is often on his own, with few characters around him to interact with, so he starts to flatten as a character. His obsessive drive for work is all we learn about him chapter after chapter. I think the second part needed more of the rich layer of his life that we got from section one. Especially, Dora should have been developed further. Her father, after making what he thinks is a contract to save her, ignores her. With his wealth he wouldn’t have showered her with a private tutor? Something?

The ending was like falling off the cliff. And thinking back to The Thirteenth Tale, that ending was also a little abrupt. Overall, a good story and highly recommend to those who love Victorian era stories with an element of darkness and obsession.

Once Upon a River

When a drowned girl appears at the Swan, life for the inhabitants living near the Thames River will never be the same again. Is she missing daughter of the Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn who had their daughter kidnapped two years ago? Or the daughter of the rake and rascal, Mr. Armstrong? And why does Mrs. White post the impossible claim that it she is her sister?

This book, a love child by Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Patricia McKillip, is ultimately about the love of a good story and how masterful tales becomes everyone’s story. How much truth is there in storytelling and how we change reality with our words.

Once Upon a River winds along like its namesake. It has a big story to tell with a large ensemble cast of characters. One of the things I love is how, despite the historical time period, Setterfield is able to bring us a lot of diverse characters: Mr. Armstrong (Sr) is a half black, half white man dealing with the prejudices of the time, married to Bess, who with the power of her Seeing eye has no doubt about her son, Robin’s, perfidy. Rita Sunday, raised in a convent and now a nurse, and photographer Daunt whose amazing slideshow to out a killer is successful in ways he hadn’t imagined.

Add in a pig, who is the ultimate Mother Confessor (shades of Blandings by Wodehouse), and a mysterious supernatural Charon character named Quietly, and this book weaves a story about the human condition, blending tragedy and mystery.

Where Setterfield excels in all her books is in the portrayal of people at the cusp of change. Armstrong must as a father finally realize that love is not enough to turn his stepson into a person he is not. Robin discovers that the fantasy he has built about his origins is false. Mr. Vaughn must pay the price of his white lies. Rita finds her heart split on what direction to go in her life.

For those who are not familiar with reading these types of blockbuster historical pieces it may seem like a lot of detail are here. That is the point of the genre.

Setterfield’s stories deal a lot with the art of storytelling. If you don’t love reading words, you will find this book big and a large mouthful to swallow. It is not written for today’s McReady Reader who wants micro-bits of a story told on a rollercoaster with a series of tropes. If that is your fare, this is not your book.

Of the three, my second favorite with the best ending of the three.

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